Who came up with the brilliant idea for those glass partitions at doctors’ offices? The ones the receptionists hide behind and reluctantly slide open only to slip through those sign-in clipboards, to pluck away your medical insurance cards, or most dreaded, to simply placate the waiting, as if patients are untamed creatures.
Yesterday, I stood at one of those partitions, trying to catch my breath. I’d burst into the waiting room, startling glassy-eyed patients who had been waiting too long.
We were late. Twenty minutes late to be exact.
We usually are barely running on schedule for my mother’s doctor appointments. I try not to rush her, as rushing doesn’t get very far with an elderly 92-year-old woman, who already is frustrated enough by her debilitations, tasks as small as snapping open a can of ginger ale.
But I’ve been late myself for doctor appointments. I know their cruel policies.
So I had called from the road, saying we were a few minutes late. It was a few minutes. Eleven to be exact.
“Well, we have a 15 minute late policy,” came a young girl’s voice through the static of my cell phone.
I was grateful it wasn’t one of those 10-minutes-late policies. I’d lost a pediatric dentist appointment to one of those. Especially cruel, as what mother can ever be on time anywhere with two toddlers?
“We’ll be there in three minutes.”
I really thought we would be there in three; the office was less than one block away. But they were digging up the road just in front of us, and traffic had to navigate around orange cones. I could almost reach out and touch the building, its adobe style walls.
“Well, we always have to wait, anyway,” my mother said.
We have this discussion every time. I remind her that we don’t exist in the waiting room until we sign our names on that all-important clipboard.
She checked her lipstick in the visor mirror. “You better let me run in while you park.”
Run? Seriously? My mother is remarkable for her age. But the reality is, she is dependent on a cane, and her balance is so precarious, she weaves and totters.
I park. Run in. She’s still in the car gathering her things, her newspaper and books, always anticipating, usually rightly, hours of waiting and waiting.
So there I am, panting at the partition. The other patients gaze on, grateful for this disheveled distraction.
I had to wait for the smudge-free (because of those neat little finger handles) window to slide open. Hesitantly.
Somehow I could place the tiny voice from my cell phone with the young plain girl in front of me. Like an old long lost relative, I say, “We made it.”
“You’re now twenty minutes late though.”
I just looked at her. She was incongruous somehow; plain-faced, she appeared as if she’d just come in from a hen house after collecting the morning’s eggs. But then she was wearing this black T-shirt with red sequined hearts.
“We were right here. Around the corner. Stuck in traffic.”
“I understand, but 15 minutes is our policy.”
“So you’re going to turn us away because we’re now just five minutes past your 15 minutes policy?”
She blinked at me, and I saw myself for what I was: just another creature on the other side of the glass in need of taming. “I'm sorry, but she’s not even an established patient,” she said.
I thought about telling her how hard it is, and long it takes for my poor mother to get even her socks and shoes on.
I didn’t. I leaned forward, shoving the window open wide. I stuck my head in, and in the most meaningful voice I could muster, said simply, “My mother is 92.”
She didn’t get it. She straightened a stack of papers for the heck of it, and I realized she was still too young to realize that she herself wasn’t immortal. That she would not be blessed with that youthful little lithe body for eternity.
She set down the neat pile of papers. Her nail polish was chipped. I could see her in the evenings, watching reality shows and painting heart decals on her pinkies.
“I have to check with the nurse. If she says it’s ok…then it’s ok.” She smiled a smile as thin as a razor, shut the glass window.
I couldn’t help feeling grateful.
I went outside to check on my mother’s progress. She had gotten out of the car, and was walking gingerly up the walkway. I thought about how much later we would have been if she had been the one to “run in.” We wouldn’t even have this, a possible blessing of the nurse’s ok.
Which we did get!
Amd the receptionist slipped another clipboard through the window, this one with all the new-patient papers to fill in. “Just so you know, this can’t happen again.”
I was easily old enough to be her mother. I could have changed her diapers.
My mother and I sat down to fill out papers. She had yet to find an internist she liked, and this time had decided on trying a female doctor. I had high hopes.
We’d been sitting less than five minutes when “the nurse” called us in. “You can finished the papers afterwards. We’re already running too behind,” she snipped, just to remind us to feel bad for throwing off their entire schedule by those five plus minutes.
She began rattling off the usual new-patient questions as she was still helping my mother navigate up the step to sit on the examining table.
“Have you ever had surgeries?” she said sitting down at the computer, her fingers poised over the keys.
I thought of how many surgeries one person could rack up by age 92, and I didn’t blame my mother for having to close her eyes tight to remember them all.
“Well, I guess the first was having my tonsils out…”
“The year? Oh, I don’t know I guess I was about eight…”
The nurse nods at the computer. My mother’s birthday is probably somewhere on the screen. She’s doing the math.
Any other surgeries?”
“Well, appendix after that, I guess. . . .”
“My mother opens her eyes. “You mean what year?”
“She was a child,” I pipe up.
“Any others? Surgeries?”
I could see my mother was feeling overwhelmed, not having been prepared to have to answer questions going back to when she was a little girl.
To fill the long minutes as she shut her eyes again, I laughed. A bit too loudly, saying, “Well, there was your C-section, when you had me…”
The nurse was wearing a blue blouse dotted with white flowers. She didn’t look at either of us, and I stared at the flowers. They started to have faces like little ghosts. “And when was that?” she asked.
I laughed again. “When I was born.”
Now she was looking at me. For the first time. “What year?”
Holy. She was asking my age, and I’m at that age where I don’t feel like revealing it.
“My mother had me when she was forty-five.” I hoped she’d do the math, adding on the years to my mother’s own birth year rather than mine.
Luckily, my mother then jumped ahead in the time to her hip surgery, and I realized she’d skipped over two hernias and her mastectomy, but then I wondered what the heck all this history mattered, except to fill in the blanks on the screen.
“Hip replacement, and when was that?”
“Well, let’s see it was in the summer, and we had friends visiting, and we were going to that restaurant, you know on East Main? They have these brick steps that are uneven…”
I began my deep breathing. This is the kind of digressing my mother always does at the doctor’s, the kind that makes me keep checking my own watch. She can’t seem to get past the fact that doctors don’t care a hoot about the how or why. Just the when.
“2005,” I pipe up. I try not to pipe up, something my mother hates.
We finally moved on to her medications, which were easy since we had a list, and then the nurse spun off her stool to take my mother’s blood pressure and pulse. She was wearing an engagement ring that looked too tight. I tried to imagine some guy proposing, maybe casually over Chinese food, or elaborately, over a candlelit dinner at a sweet country inn.
I couldn’t imagine her in any other setting than this one, checking her watch as she checked my mother’s pulse.
She left. My mother sat on the edge of the table staring at this poster on the wall of a bear looking over his shoulder. “Now why would there be a picture of a bear in a doctor’s office?”
Then the doctor came in. And honestly, this lady was a delightful burst of cool air; she seemed to have no sense of time at all! “So nice to meet you,” she said extending her hand to my mother, and breezily sitting on the stool, as if she’d blown in for a glass of iced tea after a relaxing day at the beach.
She began with her own list of questions, but didn’t get very far past whom my mother’s past doctors had been. “Well, first there was Dr. Locus – ” my mother began.
“Oh, Dr. Locus, and he only just retired, did you know that?”
Sweet and chatty, she went on about how he had retired early to spend more time with his grandchildren, but she saw him now and then at the country club, etc.
I kept waiting for her to check the time. She didn’t. She just kept chatting. She chatted away, before finally getting around to the knitty gritty of the physical, that I began to think my mother was the last patient of the morning.
She wasn’t. When we came out, there were annoyed patients waiting in their little cubicles, staring at other posters of animals on the walls. And more annoyed patients in the waiting room, many looking as if they did indeed need to be placated, at least thrown some peanuts.
And then there was that receptionist. As we were exiting, she glanced up from behind the partition. The nurse was behind the glass now too, and she glanced up briefly. Then they were whispering as they both looked at us, but as you know, those partitions are sound-proof.